Chef Pati Zarate instructing a trainee about the proper way to quarter a tomato. / Credit: Luis S. Campos
Chef Pati Zarate instructing a trainee about the proper way to quarter a tomato. / Credit: Luis S. Campos

With cursive initials tattooed at the corners of her eyes and a smile on her face, 22-year-old Dulce González talks of her struggle in life. Last year, she faced jail time for drug and weapons possession. With two children to raise and nowhere to turn, she contacted Father Gregory Boyle, her priest at Dolores Mission.

Father Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries, didn’t hesitate to give González a second chance. González started working at Homegirl Cafe last December.

“The Cafe has helped me a lot,” González says. “I’m staying out of my neighborhood and just staying focused and on track.”

Throughout the café’s seven years of operation, hundreds of girls have had the same life-changing opportunity.
Chef Pati Zarate founded Homegirl Cafe in 2006 with just a dozen young women. Zarate’s decision to open the cafe came out of her passion for food and her commitment to Boyle Heights. While working as a secretary for Father Boyle, she had spent time preparing home-cooked meals for the community. She had also started her own restaurant, El Zarape, later called Plaza Cafe, at First and Boyle, and began hiring homegirls — former gang members. El Zarape never quite became a profitable business, but it gave Zarate and Father Boyle an idea for how to help troubled girls.

From the beginning, Zárate understood the bigger purpose of the restaurant. “The Cafe is a place for the girls to be transformed,” she says. “It isn’t just a place for employment. It is also a place for healing, a place to put life back together.”

Homegirl Cafe is a division of Homeboy Industries, which helps at-risk former gang members to rejoin the community through education and training in the culinary arts. The requirements for employment at all the businesses in Homeboy Industries are the same: that you’ve been in prison, in a gang, or an addict. Most employees meet all three criteria.

Homegirl Cafe offers full-service catering for any special event./ Credit: Jonathan Olivares

Manager Erika Cuéllar has been at the Cafe for three years. Her job is not that of a typical restaurant manager. Instead, she plays the role of “a therapist, a mother, a sister, a trainer and a manager.”

The challenges of her job, Cuéllar says, have everything to do with the background of the girls. “They were enemies on the street,” she says. “You leave that outside the door”¦ and you start establishing friendships.”
For González, the Cafe helps her do “what I have to do– which is taking care of myself and my two sons,” she says.

It’s a story that’s repeated among the Cafe employees. For many single mothers, former gang members, and recovering addicts, the Cafe offers up hope for a better life along with a meal. For many, this job is the only thing keeping them out of trouble.

The Homegirl Cafe has a unique discipline system. Most workplaces rely upon a three-point warning system, but the Cafe has an 11-point system. “Even then, it is difficult for the girls not to get 11 warnings,” Cuéllar says.
Each employee has a case manager. Employees also turn to each other for help. Forty-year-old Adela Juárez, a hostess, serves as a mentor to some. She tells them, “You can reach a goal. It’s never too late.”

Throughout the years, the Cafe has experienced many changes, including a move to an airy, modern facility downtown, along with the rest of Homeboy Industries. In September 2010, the Café launched a training program aimed at giving the girls the skills to work elsewhere. The program focuses on technical skills and developing a sense of self-empowerment. The employees rotate through eight to 10 stations over two months.

At the end of the training, the girls can do an internship at a partnering restaurant. Partners include Border Grill, BLD, Black Cat Bakery and Greenleaf Gourmet Chop Shop. “We equip them with what they will need to go on,” says Cuéllar, “but we will never kick them out.”

Although in the past there hasn’t been a formal tracking of cafe alumni, about 50 girls go through the program each year, says Zarate. The cafe now has a job-readiness coordinator who will begin conducting “alumni relations” to keep tabs on where the homegirls end up.

Last year, financial difficulties forced Homeboy Industries to lay off 313 of its 427 employees. With donations, grants and a new city contract, Homeboy Industries has rehired and now has nearly 300 employees.

While not turning a profit, the cafe is increasing its revenues. But Father Boyle says that making money is not its primary purpose. “It’s not like a regular restaurant,” he says, “which would have about 10 people working.” The cafe currently employs 40 people.

What the Cafe is about, says Father Boyle, is creating a family. When the girls move on, they tend to stay in contact. “They all come back,” he says, “”¦ just like you would visit your family and get home cooking, and a big hug from your mom.”

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